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Keegan plans to grow in Church St theater

The Keegan Theatre, on Church Street in Dupont Circle, plans to renovate its building and add a small addition, a new and glassier lobby.

Rendering of proposed design. All images from the Keegan Theatre.

The changes will give the cramped theater the backstage space it needs, and will make it accessible to persons with disabilities. The biggest debate will likely revolve around design. Is a lobby with wavy glass an impressive addition to the block, or will it distract from the existing historic fabric?

Current building needs changes

The brick building, on Church between 17th and 18th, was originally the gymnasium for the private all-girls Holton-Arms School, which was located in Kalorama until moving to Bethesda in 1963. In 1975, the building became a theater, and the Keegan became its full-time resident company in 2009.

The building today. Image from the Keegan Theatre, recolorized by the author.

It's a charming and intimate theater, and the Keegan has put on some great productions there, but the building poses some big obstacles. The front steps are not accessible for people with disabilities, and the front lobby is very small. There's a very limited backstage area and almost no space for building sets, creating costumes and props, or for actors to dress.

The bathrooms are tiny, squeezed into the basement, and not very nice. During intermission, there are long waits. I live on this particular block, and so when Greater Greater Wife and I go there for shows, we just go home to use the restroom between acts, but that's not an option for most people.

After seeing the condition of the bathrooms, an arts donor gave the Keegan money to renovate the space. They shared with neighbors and the ANC their proposed plans to dig out a basement, to create space for production and green rooms, opening up more space for the lobby and bathrooms.

The only externally-visible change would be a small new foyer in the current side yard, between the theater and the building next door. The new foyer would make space for an ADA-compliant elevator and new stairs between floors.

At a recent community meeting, one question from neighbors revolved around the design of the addition. The architect, Stoiber & Associates, has proposed a very modern look for the addition, with wavy lines and multi-colored glass.

Besides the theater, Church Street is filled with turn-of-the-century painted brick townhouses, with a few larger apartment buildings at the end of the block and one in the middle, across from the Keegan. Would a tiny addition just over 16 feet wide in this style look very strange tucked amid the rows of brick townhouses?

What do you think?

Preservationists differ on "compatibility"

This question raises a point of great debate in historic preservation. When a new building comes into a historic area, or a historic building gets an addition, the law says that the addition must be "compatible" with the historic district. But what is "compatible"?

The Old Georgetown Board rejected this. Rendering by Topher Mathews.
Some preservationists feel that "compatible" means the new addition should resemble the old in style. This is the approach review boards take in some places, such as Georgetown. The Old Georgetown Board wanted the Georgetown Apple store to look like a Georgetown building and not a typical glassy or white Apple store.

There's some merit to this approach. Georgetown has a charm that comes from a consistent architectural style. Architects often want to make their buildings as flashy as possible, but rows of small buildings like those along a commercial strip shouldn't out-compete each other for dazzle; they should look like a row. They needn't all be identical, but shouldn't create a chaotic riot either.

In the rest of DC's historic districts, the Historic Preservation Office has generally taken a different approach. They argue that a new building should not try to look like old buildings, but exhibit a style and materials "of its time." In other words, a building built in 2012 should look to the observer like a 2012 building.

But not all 2012 buildings look alike. A 2012 building could use brick, like the rest of the street, only it could look like 2012 brick. Or, it could strive for a super-modern look that's totally opposite.

JBG U Street proposal. Image from JBG.
At a recent Historic Preservation Review Board meeting, board member Graham Davidson criticized a project on Florida Avenue, saying, "Your responsibility is not to create an icon... [but] to knit the neighborhood back together." Will the board want something iconic or something that seems to connect the fabric on both sides?

The theater is in the center of a residential block, and is a larger building than the adjacent row houses. That means it already serves as a focal point rather than a part of the row. By that logic, a prominent addition would make sense, to further punctuate the building's unique role among its neighbors.

On the other hand, the board might feel that a flashy design for a tiny addition detracts from the beautiful, old, historic main theater, and want something less conspicuous. They could ask Keegan to tone down the flash and dazzle in favor of either a more modest glass atrium or a brick addition that doesn't stand out.

As a resident of the block, I can see both sides of this one. As modern designs go, this is actually fairly attractive. However, always hard to know for sure how a project will look just from its renderings. Will the colors be as vibrant as they appear there? How much will it stand out, really? Plus, this isn't a large building in a distinctive architectural style; it will be 15 feet wide. Will such a small piece look too strange with such different materials from everything else?

Regardless of the approach Keegan and HPRB choose, a renovated theater that meets the needs of today will enhance the neighborhood and strengthen the arts in DC. The donor's contribution goes a long way, but the Keegan will need to raise more money from its audience and supporters to get the project built.

Keegan will present the latest draft of the plans to ANC 2B at next Wednesday's meeting, and the Historic Preservation Review Board will discuss the proposal later this month.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Right now, the space that would be filled by the addition is just a gap in a row of rowhouses that provides a view onto an alley. Almost anything would look better -- and I think the glassy proposal would be exciting.

by Brad on Apr 5, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

That's about the fairest review of options I've read in a while. Personally, I think the addition looks fine, for all the reasons you've stated. Also, becasue it deffers in scale to the surrounding buildings, it dosen't seem to detract from the Theater. But bringing the Georgetown example is great for this discussion. In the Apple store case, it was a whole new building, rather than clearly an addition. But still, why the two different standards?

The question of what a 2012 brick building is interesting also. If you do the same thought experiment in say, 1850, or 1900, would the options be similar? Say i'm an architect in Georgetown around 1900, and I've just been commisioned to design a row house on a street full of Federal styled buildings with the odd Victorian infills. What do I do? Do I make sure every passerby knows the building is a 1900 brick building? No, that would never cross my mind becasue that kind of obsession with authenticity is a relic of modernism, although I might be concerned with the authenticity of materials (Ruskin). What might be my primary consideration in 1900? Beauty. I might do a Federal revival home, or an up-dated Beaux-Arts house, and if I was builder, it might even be a pattern book late Richardsonian Romanesque building. The point being, my client, my budget, or my own artistic will would decide the style or lack there of, but my main concern would be that passerbys would think I did something beautiful becasue that's how I'd get my next job.

So back to the future, this design looks quite attractive, but I could also make it a "green house" looking glass design that might have been done 100 years ago. Eitherway, I would strive to make it beautiful, becasue that's still what most non-architects might want. Truth be told, I'd also not want to stand out just for the sake of standing out, but it takes all kinds to make a society and a street. I'll be curious to see how they go on this one, becasue the double standard of Georgetown and the rest of the city is one I've never understood.

by Thayer-D on Apr 5, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

We've lived around the corner from this building for 21 years and would love to see such an attractive addition. In addition to the new addition, it would eliminate what can only be described as an eyesore from the front and even from the alley. As a practical matter, I doubt that any successful theater company would stay long in the current facilty if they could afford to move. Let's keep Keegan in the neighborhood.

by Tim on Apr 5, 2012 3:41 pm • linkreport


by Dan Gamber on Apr 5, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

The addition is stunningly beautiful and it wonderfully complements the historic. Hope you won't be a NIMB.

by Thayer on Apr 5, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

I think its great. Respects scale. Doesn't try to replicate what's there, which I think rarely works out. It is what it is: a respectful addition in the style of the day that doesn't detract from the gorgeous old structure. And, as Brad and Tim point out, this is far, far better than the existing parking/alley.

I don't get the love afair with all glass curtain walls these days, but this does a nice job of using the materials and designs of today on the scale of what exists. It is not pretending to be something it isn't.

I am confused at to what the new brick box at the top is... I would think an elevator for one or two floors would be a hydrualic piston type where the equipment is below, not above as with higher cable and pulley type.

Anyway, I approve.

by dano on Apr 5, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

First impression - impressed that it's not overscaled. Amazing. Stunned.

Teach scale to the builders of pre-fabricated condos!

by Jazzy on Apr 5, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

I think a nice effect is that it will have a clearly identified entry. Imagine you have never been to this theater before, and you are walking down the street towards it at night after dark. It will kind of glow like a lantern and reveal itself as you get closer.

by spookiness on Apr 5, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

Not my neighborhood; I may never have actually been on the block before, but I'll weigh in nonetheless, if for no other reason than to temper the lovefest ever so slightly.

My impression: It's not great looking, but I like what it achieves for the theater. Also, for a wavy glass thing between historic buildings it somehow manages to be fairly understated - it's not nearly as offensive as it could be.

by Lucre on Apr 5, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

My initial reaction is that I'm concerned that it's incompatible with the street because it brings in an element not already on the street ... i.e., it looks too much like an office building. Yeah, that may be because all the new office buildings in town are using glass now, and some are even using wavy glass. I definitely have nothing against the use of glass, nor against the fact that it's modern. It just needs to look more in line with an old residential street ... like the gymnasium which was made to look like a church when designed so many years ago. It too could have been made to look like the 1930s (20s?) gymnasium it was ... but the architects too care to let it be compatible with the residential neighborhood. These architects should do the same. I see where David's coming from as far as it 'sticking out', but IMHO, it's sticking out not for the same reasons as the original buildings but because it looks like it better belongs at the corner of Conn. and L Streets than on a quiet charming Washington half street in the old L'Enfant city.

by Lance on Apr 5, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport


It brings in an element that will soon be on the street. The planned new sanctuary at St Thomas Episcopal Church, will also have plenty of glass, both facing 18th Street as well as on Church Street. And the sanctuary will also blend historic (including chancel ruins) with modern.

by Mike on Apr 5, 2012 8:59 pm • linkreport

Great, thoughtful article. Great to see plans to improve the Keegan's physical plant. If I lived on this block, I would welcome the improvement to that alley.

I just hope the additional backstage space doesn't come with the price of some of the theater company's high-quality but on a shoestring charm (and I wonder if some of that comes from the almost speakeasy effect of the current entrance).

by Arl Fan on Apr 5, 2012 9:40 pm • linkreport

This is a wonderful, well thought out addition. Many old buildings in DC have had modern touch-ups. This, I would call an accent addition. It still is respectful of the ambiance of the block--takes nothing away from that, but adds flavor to it. As long as every historic building isn't infringed upon like this--creating a disjointed mosaic, a touch here and there of 21 Century modernity, I believe, creates a harmonious visual attractiveness.

by Dave on Apr 6, 2012 3:09 am • linkreport

I think this is pretty cool. I like the Keegan and their productions, but they're dead-on in wanting to expand. The lobby gets crowded very quickly pre-show and during intermissions, and it's not exactly fun to wait on the street when you're there for a winter show. The glass frontage is a nice but not excessive distinction from the residential buildings around it, and I find that appropriate.

by worthing on Apr 6, 2012 8:54 am • linkreport

I like this addition.

by andrew on Apr 6, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

Though drawings and plans do engender does seem that projects such as Keegan's...and those of a more retail nature...would do well to present two options to communities and review boards. Some cities require this. Display one design that may be more flashy but then also present one that is traditional for the community to review. This approach achieves two important goals: the first is that it signals to the community that the business (or theater in this case) is actually sensitive to the architectural environment in which they operate and gave their project much thought. The second goal achieved it that it signals to area residents a sense of respect for their opinions and an understanding that a majority should prevail with one design or the other.

by Pelham1861 on Apr 6, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

To me, it's not the wavy form that makes it stand out in this neighborhood - there are many building with curved facades of towers and bow windows - but it's the extensive use of glass, and specifically the shininess/reflectiveness of the glass (not the colorfulness) which introduces a more modernist element to the block. I always prefer additions which clearly are of their own era; the designers' challenge is to achieve that without falling back on fake historicism. The community's challenge is to express their preferences without quashing creativity. I think this is a real good start; it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

by Anon2009 on Apr 6, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

I usually side with preservationists on things like this but something about this design actually "works". It could have been so much more offensive but this seems to be a design done right. I walk up and down this street several times a week and this would be a welcome addition to the already very interesting and beautiful block.

Cheers to the donor who gave them the money for this new space, regardless of what it ends up looking like.

Also, LOL at "Greater Greater Wife".

by Redraiderdc on Apr 6, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

@Mike, Like I said above, I'm not bothered by the glass or the modernism. What bothers me about the design is that it's too 'office-like' ... i.e., commercial. I'm sure with a few tweaks though that the architects will be able to address that issue and still retain the glass modernist look.

I do like Pelhamn's idea though. While I tend to go for the glass modernist look, there are probably others in the community (for example the neighbors closest to the property) who might feel more comfortable with a brick design (for instance.) And it's these folks in the end of course who should be satisfied with what the users of that theater space are putting in .. since these folks will be the ones having to look at it forever .. .even after that theater experiences yet another name change some day ...

by Lance on Apr 6, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Actually, I do have one additional concern. Are they planning on letting this be the main entrance? It'd be a shame to lose the current entrance ... climbing those stairs and entering within those historic doors add to the experience of 'seeing a play' there.

Additionally, there might be a problem with relocating the main entrance so close to residence. The present doorway is far enough away from that house to its east that crowds going in and out probably only minimally affect that house. (Especially since the door faces the road.) But the new doors are going to be in a small area where sound will reverberate and with the doors facing that house, noise is sure to be an issue.

by Lance on Apr 6, 2012 2:00 pm • linkreport

Lance: Yes, this will become the main entrance, and under the current proposal the current main door will become inoperable. That's because as soon as you go in that door there are stairs up a half floor to the lobby, which take up a lot of space, so they want to just fill in the floor which would block the door.

by David Alpert on Apr 6, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

In my opinion the new glass addition robs the original structure of it's charm. It's distracting, not appropriate and just doesn't seem to fit into this quaint little block.
I don't understand why it's so difficult in DC to add an addition that would blend with historic structure adjoining it. It's done all the time in New Orleans and only adds to the charm. Then again, this is just my opinion and I recognize everyone is entitled to their own.

by Greg on Apr 6, 2012 6:53 pm • linkreport

@ Lance,
"I'm not bothered by the glass or the modernism. What bothers me about the design is that it's too 'office-like' ... i.e., commercial."
Isn't the DC office-commercial style defined by it's glass and modernism? To me, the wavey glass ribbons weaving through the vertical sturcture is what gives it a sculptural quality. So what I would normally find jarring, like the JBG proposal on U street becomes a whimsical moment on a glorious street. It reminds me of the Bilbao museum as viewed from the 19th century apartments in the downtown, but as the previous poster said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

by Thayer-D on Apr 6, 2012 8:17 pm • linkreport

David, Of course the problem of the stairs (and floor space) could be solved simply by lowering the lobby to the front door entrance ... which happens to also be the stage level from what I can tell. I.e., you go up a flight of stairs to enter the (current) lobby and gain access to the theater hall .. but then walk DOWN toward the stage ... bringing you back to the front door level ...

Maybe letting the theater be entered from the sides (like a multiplex movie theater) would accomplish the same thing without having to move the entrance to the side ... and without the high added cost of an elevator ...

by Lance on Apr 6, 2012 11:09 pm • linkreport

Lance, all of the alterations you're recommending would be more expensive than this addition, with no added space, and more damage to the historic architecture.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 7, 2012 12:27 am • linkreport

@Neil, Why no added space? I didn't say the fix for the front door was 'instead' of the addition. I'm just trying to think of a solution that would allow continued use of the front door. An addition could still be built to make a larger lobby and provide other space.

Front doors are important to buildings in more ways than just providing access. It's 'how' they provide access to a building ... the way the architect intended the building to be entered. Using a side door to enter a building, particularly a public building, is usually a very bad idea. It deminishes a critical part of the experience of entering that building IMHO.

by Lance on Apr 7, 2012 10:26 am • linkreport

I absolutely support the notion that new additions should not copy the architecture of the original building and therefore distort what the appearance of the original was. All glass additions are especially good at preserving the original without changing it.

Architecture is almost illegal in DC as we use preservation as an excuse to stop new architecture. No wonder we get such blandness.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 7, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

@Lance: I don't believe that assessment of the layout of the interior is correct. My recollection from the presentation was that the current lobby floor is at the same level as the floor in front of the stage. You can walk through doors on either side of the lobby and then walk level alongside all the seats and end up at the front row of seats.

The walkway along the side that's on your left if you are facing the stage also leads to the side door which goes outside to the side yard.

The Keegan likely has to keep this all level to make sure they have seats which are accessible for people in wheelchairs. They couldn't make this level flush with the front door without rebuilding the entire stage and seat structure lower, and then they would not be able to use the side door.

by David Alpert on Apr 7, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

@David, Yes, you're correct. Maybe they could make the new side entrance a handicapped entrance and leave the main entrance as it is. The quaintness of entering the theater through those doors and then climbing the stairs is definitely part of what sets the tone for the place. But, of course, that's all "interior" and their sole choice in the end. I guess we'll just worry about the exterior.

by Lance on Apr 7, 2012 7:32 pm • linkreport

The planned addition would do what architecture is meant to do: delight and surprise the eye, and give the neighborhood character. What a marvelous little bijou in a fine old neighborhood.

by Doug on Apr 9, 2012 9:13 am • linkreport

David, quick question. You mention the size of the dressing rooms, areas for building sets and bathrooms. With this addition is there going to be further buildout in the downstairs areas that aren't visible in the drawings? The main functional additions I see here are the areas for new entrance, stairs and elevator space (a good and necessary addition of its own).

Not sure what to do about the current front door. Honestly I find faux front doors pretty ugly and a constant reminder of former functionality now compromised. Has there been any thought about perhaps making a nicely designed colored window for the space? It would let in some more controlled natural light to the lobby and at least add some interest to otherwise dead space.

by Mike O on Apr 9, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

As a long-time member of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, I've heard the debate of consistency argued many time. While we can all cite modern additions that don't work, there are many that do and become welcome additions. I think of the pyramid at the Louvre and Pompedou Centre that would roundedly denounced and since have become iconic.

Innovative design that complements its surroundings is preferrable,in my opinion, to faux historic. I think is a very attractive design and, as anyone who has been to plays there knows,is much needed.

by Iris Molotsky on Apr 9, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

I guess I have the opposite view from some who object--I don't mind the shiny glass--what bothers me is the curving shape. Why? I think by completing or just extending it to a rectangle with glass, would provide natural light for the lobby (LEED!) and also make for a better fit for the block and less "obtrusive" for neighbors.

I've seen many a show at the Church Street--it's a tiny tiny space--any addition is welcomed---particularly bathrooms.

Also, by having more of an indoor lobby space, the theatre will actually promote noise reduction, by keeping most of the patrons inside during intermissions and post-show events (meet and greets), and should cause less spill-out onto the street itself, which is, I'd assume, where the noise issues could arise for neighbors.

As for style, and keeping with the look of the street--it's a wildly erratic street in terms of architecture...the end closer to 18th st. has all sorts of diverse architecture from early 20th to mid 20th, and also don't forget the church that is right next door that is half-open onto some sort of park, which I've always found weird.

I wish someone would donate enough $$$ to Keegan so they could buy that adjoining space and create a much larger space on that my mind, it would be a much more productive use of that space and would put it at the end of the block with the main entrance on a much busier 18th street. That would be a better fit in my view.

But if that's not possible, then what is there, oh well, better than nothing.

by LuvDusty on Apr 10, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

LuvDusty: The architects said that they can't make the atrium larger because of lot occupancy zoning rules. The building is almost but not quite at the allowable lot occupancy. They had to really shape the atrium carefully to make it able to fit the door, elevator and stairs but not to be too large and go over the lot occupancy.

They could get some relief by requesting a "special exception" from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, but even if there is no opposition that takes a lot of time. They decided to stay inside matter of right zoning.

And where are you thinking Keegan would expand toward 18th? Keegan is right in the center of the block. There are about 15 houses and then a church between it and 18th.

St. Thomas, the church on the corner, has that park space between them and 18th because that is where their church was until it was burned down by arson in 1980. The current pointed gable thing you see was actually the back wall of the church, and the current building was the parish house behind the church.

They are currently planning to build a new church in the open space. Unfortunately, it won't be nearly as beautiful or grand as the original church, but the design is not bad. The plans would place the entrance on 18th.

by David Alpert on Apr 10, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

Thanks for informing me of the new church plans, David.
I love the old ruin in a park. It was a great escape from the crowds of Dupont if one wanted a quiet picnic spot. What they are proposing is god awful and surley not as beautiful as the original, but looking on the bright side, at least it's "of our time"!

by Daniel Morales on Apr 11, 2012 8:34 am • linkreport

@Daniel, I'm in agreement with you that the church's design is 'less than overwhelming'. But that is on purpose. The reason behind this very different incarnation of the same church is the changing/evolving role of the church and faith for some Christian denominations. In these denominations, the members view themselves more as 'a community of equals' needing a community center in which to meet, than those of a hierarchical institution where the priest is meant to lead and command AND where the awe-inspiring architecture of the church building supports his/her doing so by awing the parishoners/congregants.

Architecturally of course, it's the traditional awe-inspiring church which gets the many nods of admiration. But in our modern world where we we all like to think we know best, it's probably the community center model which is more appropriate and sustainable in terms of attracting new congregants ... and new donations.

by Lance on Apr 11, 2012 9:39 am • linkreport

While your analysis certainly makes sense, I don't think striving for beauty is necessarily synonymous to being overwhelming or awe inspiring. The Quaker House off of New Hampshire Ave. on the other side of Connecticut is a quiet stone building, completley unassuming in the best Quaker tradition of equality, yet it's beautiful. Beauty has a wonderful way of attracting people of both totalitarian and democratic proclivities.

Interestingly, the social program of modernism was to banish inequality by a style that not only rejected history and nationalism, but litterlally had no heirarchy, thus the Bauhaus grid, which has become the defacto style of faceless multinational corporations.

Will people liken this new church a moment of levity, a nod to today, a reflection of the equality based theology, or another ugly and incompatible addition to a lovely street?

It reminds me of our ideologically driven politics where being "moderate" is considered bad, and in our ideologically driven architectural world, "fitting in" is equally dispised.

by Daniel Morales on Apr 11, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

At Daniel, I'm not sure I would agree that the proposed new church isn't going to be beautiful. I think it's going to be beautiful in the same way that the Third Church Scientist is beautiful ... and in the same way the MLK Library building is beautiful. I.e., Its draw is going to be its simplicity and uncluttered appearance ..and, in this particular case, its ability to bring the outside in and the inside out. So while I don't think it's overwhelming in the sense church buildings traditionally are/were, I don't think its ugly either ... But, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder ... and I'm not an architect ... so I may missing something ...

by Lance on Apr 11, 2012 11:00 am • linkreport

I'm confused, first you said you agreed with my original assesment of the Church which was it would be "god awful".
Now you're saying it's going to be beautiful. You are entitled to your opinion, which I suspect most archtiects in DC would agree with, but I'm not a lawyer and don't quite understand how you are parsing the word beautiful, so I may be missing something...too.

by Daniel Morales on Apr 11, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

I think it's beautiful!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Apr 20, 2012 8:04 am • linkreport

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